North Korea's envoy to disarmament talks said Thursday that Pyongyang (search) insists on retaining the right to "peaceful nuclear activities" — a condition that other delegates say has deadlocked the talks.

"We are for denuclearizing, but we also want to possess the right to peaceful nuclear activities," said Kim Kye Gwan, a North Korean vice foreign minister. "Every country in the world has the rightegates held a rare nighttime meeting to try to resolve the impasse.

Diplomats from China, the host, asked whether they wanted to continue this round of talks, and all agreed, said the chief U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill (search).

"We all felt duty-bound to continue, because I think there is a feeling that we have taken this further than we ever have in the past," Hill said.

"We'd like to see if we can get to an agreement, and we're not there yet. No one is quite ready to say we can't get there."

Earlier Thursday, North Korea (search), South Korea and the United States met to seek consensus on the statement of principles for eliminating the North's nuclear ambitions. Hill said it was the first such three-way meeting.

North has refused to sign an agreement endorsed by the other five countries trying to persuade the hard-line regime to disarm.

Seoul's top envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, said North Korea "clarified its position" on the latest draft, but he would not elaborate.

Dismissing talk of possible failure, the Chinese government said the fact that discussions were continuing was a positive sign.

"We've made progress in that we've been able to deepen mutual understanding. That in itself is progress, and there has been no breakdown in the talks," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

Three previous rounds of six-nation talks in Beijing since 2003 have failed to bridge differences.

The North wants to limit the agreement to mentioning only its nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons program, which the United States has refused to accept, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing unnamed South Korean officials.

Earlier Thursday, Hill said North Korea must specify exactly what it would dismantle under the nuclear agreement. He has said any agreement must include eliminating any nuclear programs that could possibly be diverted for weapons use.

The North "has got to make one very basic decision," Hill said, referring to whether Pyongyang would sign the two-page document.

"It's not easy for them. I don't want to pressure them. But they've got to be able to do it. We cannot have a situation where (North Korea) pretends to abandon their nuclear program and we pretend to believe them," he said.

"We need to have a situation where we know precisely what they have agreed to do, exactly what they have agreed to abandon."

The Clinton administration agreed to help build two nuclear reactors in North Korea to generate electricity under a 1994 deal for the communist nation to halt its atomic weapons development.

That project stalled after U.S. officials said in late 2002 that the North admitted violating the agreement by launching a secret uranium enrichment program, sparking the latest nuclear standoff.

The Bush administration has said it does not want to repeat previous American mistakes and has criticized the earlier reactor project.

Japan's government said Thursday the success of the talks hinged on Pyongyang.

"We have not seen sufficient progress," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said in Tokyo. "Whether or not we can reach an agreement ... depends on North Korea's efforts."

Kim, the North Korean envoy, insisted Tuesday that the hard-line regime will not give up its atomic weapons program until Washington withdraws what it believes are threats to its security. Some 32,500 U.S. troops are based in South Korea, but Washington has denied it has any intention of invading to end the nuclear standoff.

The head of Russia's delegation, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev, returned Thursday to Beijing to rejoin the talks, the Russian Embassy said. He left Saturday for Moscow.